With The Long-Haired Boys

Lessons from the ’70s: How we tackled the food shortages

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published: May 29, 2017 12:05 am
Delhi High Court, President of India Case, Pranab Mukerjee, India news, National news, Latest news, India news 127 million tonnes, as President Mukherjee said at the centennial function, and those who made fun of us were profuse in their praise.

At a recent event where a commemorative centennial volume on Indira Gandhi’s life and works was released, President Pranab Mukherjee made a point of her commitment to self-reliance in food. The release of a coffee table book is not quite the occasion to detail the obstacles she faced, and the resoluteness with which she resolved them, but that is quite an untold story. It is a little difficult for the present generation to visualise an India which is living from hand to mouth. Food reserves were unthinkable. The food policy literally consisted of meeting deficits from PL 480 US imports and organising their distribution. Mrs Gandhi knew that global aid and the Bretton Woods systems wanted India to be dependent in this nexus. I was fortunate in getting a ringside view of this great episode in India’s history.

I had modeled a long-term plan for Gujarat and Sukhomoy Chakravarty brought me to the Planning Commission to head its powerful Perspective Planning Division (PPD), an honour I accepted for term deputation, since I did not want to join the government permanently. My predecessor, the indomitable Pitamber Pant, was a friend of Indira Gandhi. The files I inherited were always marked Pitamber to Indira. Her perspectives were clear. She was humiliated when India had to beg for grain and she wanted India to be liberated from these clutches. The PPD was mandated to build a plan for food self-reliance and if there were difficulties, to get back to the PMO.

I discovered that planning for grains was done without any field-tested data. Unlike industrial plans, there were no projects or field-based studies used to allocate resources. The norms used, like an acre of additional irrigation would give x amount of grain, were entirely fictitious. The first thing we did was to collect district-wise information on the success and failure stories and build a reasonable data-based plan. I asked the district collectors to send us data for the early 1970s and we compared it with the 1960s to build our plan. We said we needed eight hundred crores for irrigation — half the amount to complete

10 projects languishing for a decade and the rest for tube wells. We said if we did all this, we would produce 125 million tonnes of grain in 1978-79. We became the laughing stock of the finance ministry and the World Bank said only the long-haired boys of the Planning Commission can dream all this. They said India’s food production will be 118 million tonnes and we will need seven to 10 million tonnes of imports. The Economic Survey said we would not cross 122 million tonnes in a good year to mock us. Indira Gandhi stood by the long-haired boys of the Planning Commission. After the budget of 1975-76, she forced the finance ministry, despite all its scepticism, to allocate the money the PPD wanted as a supplementary budgetary allocation. We never looked back. Our production of grains in 1978-79 was

127 million tonnes, as President Mukherjee said at the centennial function, and those who made fun of us were profuse in their praise.

In Washington for a seminar in 1980, I was asked how India exceeded its target by two million tonnes. Back in Ahmedabad by then, I could say with pride I come from Gujarat and we always play safe. Now, of course, those who were sceptics then, also take credit, as they did on the centennial occasion. This gives one a comfortable feeling. Indira Gandhi’s victories belong to India. The next time you go to a party and eat well, remember this great leader and her courage in May 1975, in doing the right thing, even when criticised. In many developing countries, you can’t splurge without feeling guilty.

In real terms, the allocation to agriculture in 1975-76 was not exceeded in any year at least until the mid-1990s. After that, the CSO has not given comparable data, so I don’t know. Great leaders act and don’t just talk.

The writer, an economist, is a former Union minister

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  1. M
    Mahan Murphy
    May 30, 2017 at 2:30 am
    I used to believe in this progress and articles till I visited Europe and USA. Then I understood what is development and how society is the root cause of fast development and not the Govts. govt are just aides.
    1. A
      ashok kumar
      May 29, 2017 at 9:26 pm
      the best thing ever happening in India was kil of this great leader called indira hi who had more cabinet secretary all these kasmiri bamans. We are grateful for sikh brethren for doing this task. After her 20 year rule, the per capita income of india remained @300 dollars while singapore,south korea ,taiwan and then china became economic powerhouse. In 1990 , after her son left pm chair and chandra sekhar and vp singh left the pm chair , we had an exchange of 3 weeks to import and india had to put gold to get additional money from imf who put stringent conditions. So they did reform out of compulsion and not out of their choice. Bureaucrats like alagh do not create jobs but small Industries do. For food prodution ,pl do not forget the contribution of dr Borlaugh who invented high yielding seeds.
      1. A
        Andy Kadir
        May 29, 2017 at 9:44 am
        Crow's Footing, an aid to increasing crop production For those keen on agriculture I would like to draw your attention to 'Crow's Footing,' which is a way of planting seeds that was told to me by my g father, Stanley Buxton. Instead of planting seeds in a set distance between rows we can use equilateral triangles to plant the seeds. The rows are closer together but the seed rows are planted out of sync with the rows on either side. In this way he found it possible to increase food production by 15 on his market garden. This is an interesting statistic for those with 'green fingers' and I have been campaigning to have it used in the Third World for many years. Not only can the amount of 'cash crops' be increased, but more importantly, so can subsistence crops, which are much more important...
        1. H
          Hemant Kumar
          May 29, 2017 at 9:09 am
          Made mistakes and then corrected it. The writer calls this brilliance. Ridiculous.
          1. P
            May 29, 2017 at 3:18 pm
            The only perfect leader is Mr Modi. In fact he is responsible for everything great that has happened in India, from the Green revolution to white-revolution. Just look at his contribution in the efforts of Verghese Kurien. BTW, have you noticed that there has been a steep price hike in milk prices. Could you explain why?
          2. R
            Ramesh Chhabra
            May 29, 2017 at 8:55 am
            What is use of writing such baseless article. This article is just wasting of paper's space. It was Late Sh. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had given a call and fed 40 crore of Indians for one time meal. All Indians joined his call. Lot of Indians till date are following him. He never wait or think for dependence on PL 480 or arms, ammunition from other countries. Today we have Food Security Bill of Rs. One lac Crore, and depending on other countries for meal (edible oil, onion, Dal) to Bofors Guns, Fighters, other arms, ammunition.
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